My fascination with summer camp-themed slasher fare stems mostly from two things: my deep-seeded love of all things freaky and frightening, and my tragically unfulfilled childhood desire to attend summer camp (and partly the raging jealousy that boiled inside me every summer when my older brothers were shipped off to camp while I was deemed “too young” to attend). There were a lot of influential horror movies from the monumental ‘80s slasher era that told terrifying, titillating and often tacky tales of young adults venturing out into the deepest, most ominous parts of the woods with a group of friends to get fucked up beyond all recognition. The stripping off of clothes and the revealing of supple young bodies was only the predecessor to the bloody carnage that was about to ensue. I think a lot of horror fans, like I, got an early introduction to our beloved genre by being subjected to iconic genre fare like Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp during the impressionable years of our youth—and furthermore, dedicating our adult years to seeking out these titles and others just like them.
These movies are by no means brilliant works of creative, provocative cinematic genius, but they brought a lot of concepts and devices to the horror film chopping block that have stuck around through the proceeding decades and have become some of the most recognized and arguably admirable clichés in the genre. Some of these titles supersede others—offering up awe-inspiring special FX, buckets upon buckets of blood, mind-blowing climactic twists and quirky characters—but the true essence of a superlative summer camp slasher flick is a really bad ass killer. It goes without saying that most die-hard horror fans are suckers for these summer camp slasher flicks. So over the course of the summer, Diabolique will be presenting readers with a comprehensive catalogue of films that fall within that category. By watching these movies, you’ll learn everything you need to know in order to avoid being sliced & diced on those highly anticipated summer camping trips. Boys and girls, I present you with Diabolique’s Camp Carnage!
Sleepaway Camp: The Franchise (1983-2008)
Roll up your sleeping bags and strap on your backpacks, Diabolique campers, this week we’re taking a trip to one of the most memorable summer camps to be featured in this column, Camp Arawak. Otherwise known as the slashing grounds for Robert Hiltzik’s shocker, Sleepaway Camp (1981), Camp Arawak rose to infamy in the ‘80s in the wake of a heinous killing spree committed by one of the camp’s most seemingly innocent young campers. But this particular camper isn’t quite who one might think she is. And on that note, I must mention that Sleepaway Camp features one of the most undeniably ludicrous, albeit ghastly climactic twists in the entire history of the horror genre. I don’t believe anyone can rightfully argue that point. As I really don’t want to give the surprise away, out of courtesy for those who shamefully haven’t seen it, I’ll do my best to dodge any revealing hints.
The movie opens with John Baker and his two children, Angela and Peter, enjoying a day at the lake together. Unforeseen tragedy strikes as John and one of his children are killed in a boating accident. Years later, Angela (Felissa Rose) is sent to live with her kooky aunt Martha (Desiree Gould) and cousin Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten). Before we’re introduced to pre-teen Angela and her new domestic arrangement, we get a glimpse of some very bizarre, dream-like flashbacks that one might assume are from Angela’s childhood—or some dark place within her sub-conscious mind. I’m going to digress slightly by saying that Sleepaway Camp is not an easy movie to write about. Well, it could be, but as much as I would love to dive into the metaphorical lake of legitimately complex themes that lie beneath the surface of this seemingly formulaic slasher flick (yes, a slasher movie with brains really does exist!), I’m going to leave most of that stuff out of this article because said themes can’t really be discussed without spoiling the movie.
Anyway, back to camp. So, from that point, Martha ships Angela and cousin Ricky off the Camp Arawak for the summer. Ricky goes to camp every summer so he’s familiar with the ropes and is popular among his fellow campers. Angela, however, being the social introvert that she has become following the death of her father and brother, has a hard time fitting in. She gets bullied by the older girls—who obviously spent prior months growing boobs and honing their bitch skills—and the boys just think she’s an ugly freak. Well, all of them except for one: Paul (Christopher Collet), who Angela develops a budding romance with, which is unfortunately cut short by sexual obscurity. Poor Angela. Sleepaway Camp was one of the first additions to the slasher genre to bring to light the social burden of bullying—a topic of controversy that is relevant now more than ever, but sadly isn’t focused on as much in entertainment media as it should be.
Aside from the provocative underlying themes that unfortunately can’t be touched on in this article due to the likely possibility of spoiling the movie’s infamous finale, the film is pretty straight forward as far as slasher movie tropes go. Campers, counselors and staff members alike are picked off in varied fashion. The creepy pedophilic camp cook is first to go, and it’s moments like this one that gets viewers cheering for the murderous psychopath, whoever it may be.
What sets Sleepaway Camp apart from other slasher movies of the same ilk is that we really don’t know who the killer is until the final act of the movie. In the majority of summer camp slasher movies we know who the killer is right from the very beginning, and it’s really just a matter of witnessing a madman (or woman) pick off horny, drug-ingesting teenagers in as many cut-throat ways as possible until the final survivor makes a break for it and the imbecile authorities arrive on scene to unmask the—more often than not—hideously deformed assailant.
In the case of Sleepaway Camp, the killer at large is “unmasked” (if you can even call it that) in a very unexpectedly twisted way. And we’re not really sure what becomes of the knife-wielding maniac… until we visit Camp Rolling Hills several years later and join a group of unhappy campers in Sleepaway Camp 2, which admittedly holds its relationship to the original in the same fashion that Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn holds the original Evil Dead. With new writer Fritz Gordon and director Michael A. Simpson at the helm—and Bruce Springsteen’s sister, Pamela Springsteen, in the starring role—the proverbial rucksack comes bursting at the seams with absurd kills and gore gags. One of the few horror sequels that comes close to surpassing its predecessor, Sleepaway Camp 2 has more fun in store than any real trip to summer camp you’ve ever taken. The movie picks up a few years from where the first Sleepaway Camp left off: the killer has undergone some intense psychiatric treatment, and, of course, is ready and eager to take on the responsibilities of head camp counselor at Camp Rolling Hills. And like most summer camp slashers, this psychopath’s agenda involves cleansing the camp of the bad seeds—the ones who would rather be sneaking off to have sex and get wasted than to stick around and pledge their camp pride.
The plot progression that occurs between Sleepaway Camp and its first sequel is refreshingly plausible within the scope of horror. As we all know, there are countless horror sequels out there that make absolutely no sense in terms of how they’ve managed to evolve from blatant dead endings. Let’s face it: horror sequels are a lucrative cash-grab scheme and that’s why so many substandard ones are rushed together and made. Thankfully, Sleepaway Camp 2 isn’t one of them. It actually deserves the praise that it has gotten from most of the horror community. It must be noted that Camp Rolling Hills contains one of the most lavishly decorated cabins from any of the summer camps we visited in this column; all of the campers are just dying to claim a bunk there. And as if outhouses weren’t bad enough to begin with, you’ll never look at another hole-in-the-ground toilet the same way again. I guarantee that.
After those pesky unhappy campers are dealt with in Sleepaway Camp 2, our stab-happy camp counselor moves on to the third installment—Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland. This time around she’s traded in her counselor nametag for the visage of a troubled 17-year-old, intent on joining a motley crew of goodie-two-shoes and punks from the wrong side of the track at Camp New Horizons. Camp Rolling Hills is now defunct. Following in the wake of the slaughter spree that occurred on the grounds five years earlier, Camp New Horizons has a bit of a bad reputation. Everyone in town remembers the innocent campers that were ruthlessly murdered by one seriously overzealous camp counselor. Officer Tony Darara (Mark Oliver) has a first-hand account of the heinous events that transpired at Camp Rolling Hills and is determined to avenge the death of his son who was killed in the midst of the carnage. Fritz Gordon and Michael A. Simpson returned to the wheel for Teenage Wasteland, and Pamela Springsteen stars again. Sleepaway Camp 3 is, by no means, the worst of the series, but it’s definitely not the best either. Overall, the film fits into the same basic framework as the first sequel, but unfortunately it’s much more toned down. The kills aren’t nearly as creative and over-the top as those depicted in Unhappy Campers. However, one thing worth mentioning about Teenage Wasteland is that all of the campers are quite likeable. They all possess their own sort of eccentric charm, and the cultural and class diversity on display is enlightening. It’s actually disheartening to see some of them go. But the lazy, selfish, sexually-deviant camp counselors get what’s coming to them.
2008 marked the release of the long-dormant Return to Sleepaway Camp—the fourth and, as it stands, final installment of the series. Original writer and director Robert Hiltzik returned to make the sequel that he had always intended on making to his sole directorial feat. In this writer’s opinion, it flunked miserably—even more so because after all the years and all the hype that Hiltzik was finally coming back to camp, it failed to live up to Sleepaway Camp standards. It’s hard to admit that when considering that the franchise wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for Hiltzik. But it’s the unfortunate truth (in this writer’s opinion anyway; the film does have a hardened cult following). A highlight of this final trip to Sleepaway Camp is being reunited with original lead cast members Jonathan Tiersten (reprising his role as Ricky), and Felissa Rose (making a cameo in another unexpected twist).
I think most horror fans would collectively agree that the first two Sleepaway Camp movies are the best of the bunch. But that’s really up to the viewer to decide. If you want to be a die-hard Sleepaway camper, check out the entire series, parts 1 – 4.